Arrow in the Dust

Unfulfilled promise, is there anything more disappointing? I’m talking about movies here, of course, and not life in general. This may not be the most enticing opening to a post but it’s honest and it does reflect my feelings after I’d watched Arrow in the Dust (1954) for the first time. On paper this ought to have been right up my street – it’s a mid-50s western starring Sterling Hayden, directed by Lesley Selander and is built around the kind of redemption scenario that typically draws a positive response from me. For all that though, it didn’t work for me, it fell flat and even the relatively short running time seemed excessive.

That promise I spoke of is right there in the credits and the personnel involved, and the tense, nervy opening scene feeds into this. We’re introduced to Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) and no time is wasted in establishing the fact he’s a deserter from the army, and a cautious and jumpy one at that. When his escape leads him unexpectedly upon the scene of an ambush, one where the sole survivor is an old friend, he’s presented with a moral dilemma which will occupy his conscience for the remainder of the tale. That friend is Major Pepperis (Carleton Young), a newly assigned commander who is at death’s door and appeals to Laish’s sense of decency to carry a warning to an endangered wagon train. In brief, Laish puts his instinct for self-preservation to one side for a time and assumes the identity of the dead officer. The question is whether he can pull off this imposture, and how it will affect him.

Sounds reasonably attractive, right? What should have been a winning formula left me cold, worse than that it left me bored too. I lay the responsibility for that with the writing and the technical limitations imposed by a cheap production. For a redemption tale to succeed it’s necessary to take the protagonist on a journey, a spiritual one as much as a physical one. Well, Hayden embarks on the  physical part but there’s never a sense of his evolving as a character, as a person. He uses his presence and that trademark brusqueness but the script offers no opportunity for growth or development. None of this is helped by the nebulous and vague nature of the antagonists – the faceless, rampaging Indians. They are shown almost exclusively via stock footage and I get the impression the script was tinkered with to account for the ever changing groups of raiders – there’s  some flummery mentioned about Pawnee and Apache bands allying themselves against the common enemy.

And that stock footage really is problematic. Sure there may be other movies where the technique has been applied morel liberally, but it jarred every time I saw it (which is a lot!) and took me out of the story. Lesley Selander is a guy whose films generally appeal to me and I tend to actively seek them out for the  hard-bitten sparseness. Here though, I found the constant insertion of recycled footage broke the rhythm of the direction and distracted me badly.

So, that’s about all I have to say on this film, and I know it’s quite a bit less than is customary on this site. Hayden does what he can with the material, Coleen Gray gets short-changed in an underwritten role, and Tom Tully maybe fares best as a crusty and wily scout.

Now I’m fully aware that this stuff is all entirely subjective – one man’s meat is another man’s poison and so forth – and there will be those who feel I’ve been too harsh in my criticisms. That’s as may be but I can only call it as I see it. I realize too that a future viewing might elicit a different reaction – to be honest though, I can’t see myself returning to this for some considerable time. Not wishing to finish on a wholly negative note, readers may wish to check out some more enthusiastic takes from both Laura and Toby.

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12 thoughts on “Arrow in the Dust

  1. I know what you mean about stock footage – that pretty much stopped me from enjoying TIME TUNNEL and I was only 10at the time! Sorry this wasn’t a better movie for you. What a shame! As we say in Italy, not all doughnuts come out with a hole in the middle … Yeah, it sounds better in the original 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I imagine it does sound better in Italian. 🙂
      The point stands though – not everything is as we hope. I think what’s most disappointing is the fact there is potential there, it’s just not realized. Ah well.

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      • One does wonder, at a time when so many of these sorts of films were still being released before being taken over by television, that speed would just have been against you. And it is frustrating when it comes to Hayden – as you say, his gruff persona can be fine but it can be pretty one-dimensional when he is not trying very hard. This came out the same year as the wonderful CRIME WAVE after all – now there’s a film that doesn’t disappoint!

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        • Crime Wave is in another class altogether and there is a level of engagement that’s not present here. I think the writing wasn’t doing Hayden any favors in this, he had very little to work with.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. LoL. Yes we do celebrate these older Westerns – and many are Classics – or at least enjoyable. But we may forget that a lot of them were uninspired formula …. uhhh …. not so good. T us I think they are still interesting to watch – and a lot of them have great Stars. But really they aren’t rewatchable.

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  3. I’m with you on this film, Colin. I first saw it on the big screen (probably in the 60s) at a local flea-pit in a double bill and I vividly remember how ‘flat’ I found the film. I have seen it once since then and maybe found it a little better, probably because I wasn’t expecting anything of it, but really it is not one of the best on anyone’s CV sadly. No “SHOTGUN” this!!

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  4. I won’t linger long with this. Because I agree completely with you (and Jerry). Like Jerry I saw it on first release when I enjoyed almost any Western and found it dull then. And I finally got back to it again a few years ago (glad to revisit any of these 50s Westerns as an adult) and with more maturity in viewing it, it wasn’t any different. It’s really the way you say, a decent subject but realized with no inspiration and so makes one want to go to better films about the redemption of the hero. Your specific complaints (stock footage, wholly anonymous Indians, et all.) are all well-taken.

    It’s kind of surprising really. In the last half dozen years, encouraged by some very fine films and the advocacy of others (including some here) I’ve seen a lot by director Lesley Selander, maybe more than in the rest of my life, and really appreciate him very much now. Those others were practically all good–yes, one of them was SHOTGUN with Sterling Hayden–it was excellent, taut and concise around a few characters and interesting throughout.

    I found Hayden kind of disengaged in this, not exactly a weak performance just not trying to make it better than it is. I generally like Hayden, in Westerns as well as other movies, and may I please point that in addition to the excellent CRIME WAVE, in which Hayden has that memorable ending all to himself, his very best Western and one of the greatest ever made was also this same year. Of course, that’s JOHNNY GUITAR and he was superb in that one, a part of some of the more indelible moments of all cinema.

    I agree Coleen Gray was wasted–she was a wonderful actress and it does show in so many other movies (a number of Westerns too, beginning with that small but great role in RED RIVER). Yes, Tom Tully is very good though, but that’s kind of a given with him.

    It is kind of mystifying why this is so flat, so little artistry, given the genre in this period and some of the people involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I don’t know quite the reason this doesn’t come together – the excessive cutting in of stock footage is disruptive but but the problem is that there’s little around it to compensate.
      It’s not like the talents involved were past their peak or on a downward curve at this point either. Perhaps it’s like Sergio mentioned above, that it was just a matter of a crowded schedule catching up the participants. After all, we can’t realistically expect a clean, true strike every time.

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  5. I have always enjoyed most westerns from Hayden and Selander but like you was disappointed with this and have not seen this again for some time. The only consolation for me is that its in colour. Best regards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It looks quite good for the most part, although the majority of the inserts are noticeably different, and a handful during the climax are shockingly odd, and orange.

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